The 2016 Campaign Probably Doesn’t Matter, Except That it Does
While "fundamentals" will have more impact on choosing our next president than what happens on the campaign trail, the race itself is important.
Doug Sosnik, one-time political director for Bill Clinton, explains why “The End of the 2016 Election Is Closer Than You Think.” The explanation will not surprise most political scientists or readers of The Monkey Cage (or even OTB):
In eight out of the last nine presidential elections these decisive periods of time can all be traced back to the run up to the general election—not the fall campaign. With the exception of the 2000 election—which was an outlier on every front—voters locked in their attitudes about the direction of the country, the state of their own well-being and the presidential candidates—and their political party—prior to the start of the general election. Once voters’ views solidified, subsequent campaign events or activities simply served to reinforce their initial perceptions about the candidate and party best prepared to lead the country.
In general, the job approval ratings of the incumbent president, regardless of whether they are running for reelection, serve as a proxy for the electorate’s mood and have historically been the most accurate predictor of election outcomes. And the public’s view of the state of the economy and its expectations for the future are the strongest drivers of the job approval ratings of the sitting president. Since 1980 there have been five presidential elections where the incumbent had a job approval rating near or above 50 percent prior to the start of the general election. In each of these elections, the incumbent’s party won the election. In the three instances when the incumbent president’s job approval fell below 40 percent prior to the start of the general election, their party lost each time.
Campaigns and candidates matter mostly at the margins at the presidential level. While it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day ups and downs of the campaign, focusing on every little gaffe or gotcha, they tend not to matter much. Most voters cast their ballots for the nominee of their party and the rest vote mostly based on their perception of the state of the economy and whether the country is “moving in the right direction.”
Additionally, Sosnik notes, the mechanics mitigate against late fluctuation:
There has also been a steady increase in voters casting ballots long before Election Day, with 33 states plus the District of Columbia allowing some form of early voting. Today, every state west of the Mississippi allows early voting. In three of those states—Colorado, Oregon and Washington—all votes are cast by mail before Election Day. In the 2012 election, nationwide 32 percent of all ballots were cast early, with an increasing number of states allowing voting to begin 45 days before Election Day. In these states ballots are being cast prior to the fall presidential debates.
Amusingly, the rest of Sosnik’s column is about the infighting in the Republican Party, the GOP’s system for delegate allocation that delays the selection of the nominee and allows him to be beat up longer than necessary, and other things that, by Sosnik’s own admission, really don’t matter.
Except that they do.
Yesterday morning, Politico digital editor Blake Hounshel and Caerus CEO Erin Simpson bantered on Twitter about the horse race coverage of campaigns. Hounshel began with “Your daily reminder that online polls with low sample sizes, dubious screens and a high margin of error are hot garbage,” to which Simpson added “I’d say that’s true of all polls more than a year out.” Hounshel retorted, “only if the standard is who will win on Election Day, vs. what’s the state of the race right now,” later adding, “a presidential race is a window into the country’s hopes and fears. It’s not just about who wins and loses.”
The outcome of the 2012 election was in doubt until early October because President Obama’s approval numbers were rather low during the spring and summer*:
But beyond that, the race gave us a view of the zeitgeist, spotlighting not only the internal divisions within the Republican Party but also the national clash over income inequality, class resentments, and the outsized influence of financial elites on the political process. While the Occupy Wall Street movement had focused some attention on income inequality the previous year, it likely wasn’t as meaningful as the emergence of billionaire funders like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, Mitt Romney’s leaked comments about the “43 percent,” car elevators, and all the rest.
We’ll likely see the same thing again. Obama’s approval ratings are currently just below the 50% threshold but have been trending decisively upward over the last six months. On the other hand, 60% currently think the country is on the wrong track. Thus, while Hillary Clinton has to be the betting favorite, we may well see a competitive race and the Republican nominee having more than a puncher’s chance.
More importantly, though, the long contest without an incumbent will force both parties to examine who they want to be over a period of months. While it’s almost inconceivable that Clinton won’t be the nominee, debates with Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb will reveal real fractures in the Democratic coalition. We already know that the Republicans are fractured, of course, but it’ll be interesting to see how the party deals with recent setbacks on Obamacare, gay marriage, and the Confederate flag. Will either party address gun violence and police brutality? Will we have a real debate on foreign policy?
None of those issues are likely to be decisive in choosing our next president, at least compared to the state of the economy and public perception of the overall state of affairs. But the conversation itself will force the next president to think through the issues, go on the record on matters they’d prefer to have ignored, and otherwise lay out a governing philosophy. That’s a good thing.
*The embeddable widget unfortunately won’t show the custom date. The version at the site allows specifying discrete periods.